Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

Death of Ivan Ilyich tolstoy 9780140449617

I am always reading something by Tolstoy.  I love Anna Karenina, but War and Peace  is a masterpiece.  I now limit my rereadings  of it to once a year.

I must make do with Tolstoy’s short stories for a while. Anyway, I have not read all the stories.

In the Penguin edition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories,  translated by Ronald Wilks, Anthony Briggs, and David McDuff, “The  Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a grisly masterpiece.  It is both satiric and incredibly grim.

Divided into chapters, it  begins with the end.  Anthony Briggs writes in the introduction that it is a very unusual story.

…we are barely a hundred words into the narrative when we are told, ‘Gentlemen!   Ivan Ilyich is dead.’  So much for suspense. At no stage in the succeeding pages are we going to entertain doubts about the protagonists’ fate, which has been settled and sealed.

The structure is a ring composition.  It begins with and ends with Ivan’s death.

In Chapter 1, Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues learn from the newspaper that Ivan has died. Nobody is emotionally affected.  They start immediately thinking about how it can benefit themselves:  can they get a promotion?  can they get their brother-in-law the job?

And that is how society is:  brutally shallow.



All the characters in Ivan’s social circle care about the same things. They furnish their houses the same, they make the same conversation, they have the same opinions.  No one deeply cares for anyone else.   Even Ivan’s wife and daughter do not care much for him.  His long illness, with its intense pain, has been vaguely diagnosed by the doctors as a floating kidney or colitis. For his family, it is a drag on their social life.

His daughter Liza says, “I’m sorry for Papa, but why do we have to suffer?”

He tries to deny that he is dying, because it could not be happening to him.  He goes to work every day–he is a judge–until he begins to lose his concentration.

According to Anthony Briggs’s introduction, the story was based on  a true story.  A judge who lived near Tolstoy in the town of  Tula died of stomach cancer.  The judge sentenced people to very harsh punishments.  Tolstoy wondered how he could go home and enjoy his life.

Tolstoy tells the story of Ivan’s life.  It is a simple story of a successful man.  He graduated from law school and qualified for the civil service.

His career started in the provinces, where he had affairs, played cards, and married a pretty woman.

…it did not take Ivan Ilyich long to arrange a lifestyle that was as easy and agreeable as the one he had enjoyed at law school.  He did his work, pursued his career and at the same time discreetly enjoyed himself.

He does not have enough money, he and his wife think, so he goes to Petersburg, and through connections, gets a job as a judge for five thousand pounds a year. He buys a big house and arranges it all to his own taste before the family arrives.  He tracks down antiques, rugs, and plants and shows the upholsterer how to hang the curtains.  Ironically, all the accoutrements he acquires make Ivan look exactly like every other person who wants to appear richer than he is.

And while he is on the ladder to attend to the curtains, he slips and falls and bumps his side on a window knob.  He tells his family,

It’s a good job I’m athletic.  Any other man would have killed himself, but all I did was bruise myself a bit here.  It hurts when you touch it, but it’s getting better.  It is only a bruise.”

That is the beginning of his death.  He complains of the pain in his side and a funny taste in his mouth.  The doctors cannot make a definite diagnosis, though they sound authoritative. The medicine doesn’t help. He can no longer play cards.  The opium makes him sicker. Tolstoy does not say that he has cancer.  But the pain, the screaming, implies that he does.

He begins to wonder about his life.  “What if I really have been wrong in the way I’ve lived  my whole life, my conscious life?”

We are with him to the moment of his death.

This story is so realistic, and even modern, in its depiction of the doctors’ failure to diagnose and treat difficult illnesses that it is difficult to read.

Of course Tolstoy being Tolstoy, there are also spiritual problems.

The translation by Briggs is seamless.  He is one of the best Russian translators today.  I love his War and Peace (though I also love the other translations of War and Peace.).